Genetically engineered yeast cells can be used to produce the naturally occurring substance, alstonine, which has shown promising results in terms of being used in the treatment of mental disorders. Photo: Steve Gschmeissner.
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A breakthrough discovery by international researchers reveals that genetically engineered yeast cells can produce alstonine, a natural plant product, potentially revolutionising schizophrenia treatment.

Michael Krogh Jensen, a senior researcher at Denmark Technical University (DTU) and co-founder of Biomia, explains that these yeast cells can produce varied alkaloids, offering potential for schizophrenia medication with fewer side effects. The research, which is still in its initial phase, looks to identify candidates for mental disorder treatments with clinical trials expected to start in 2026.

  • Genetically modified yeast cells can produce a substance that might help in schizophrenia treatment.
  • A biotech company is set to commercialize this research.

Medication from natural plant substances

The process of developing medication from natural plant substances is not new, but plants do not inherently produce these substances to combat human diseases. Thus, modifications are essential to enhance their efficacy and safety. The DTU Biosustain team, led by Michael Krogh Jensen, has taken a novel approach by transferring the biosynthesis of plant-based alkaloids into yeast cells. This method not only showcases the adaptability of yeast as a production platform but also promises to streamline the production of plant-derived compounds.

Alkaloids have shown promise in treating mental disorders, including schizophrenia. However, current medications come with a suite of negative side effects, such as insomnia, weight gain, and reduced immunity. The genetically modified yeast presents a way to produce these alkaloids more efficiently and with the potential for reduced adverse effects. This could herald a new era of psychiatric medication.

Engineering cells

The engineering feat involves inserting specific genes from plants and enzymes from bacteria into the yeast cells. This complex interkingdom gene transfer allows the yeast to produce certain substances. The DTU team’s work centers on halogenation, a chemical reaction that plants typically cannot perform naturally. Through this technique, the yeast cells can produce a variety of alkaloids.

Biomia, the biotech company set to commercialize this research, has already attracted significant investment, raising 3 million USD in September 2023 for drug discovery.

Patience required

While the discovery has generated excitement, researchers caution that the path to a marketable drug is long and filled with regulatory hurdles. Clinical trials are a multi-phase process designed to ensure safety and efficacy before a drug can be approved for public use. Following these trials, additional time is needed for production scaling, marketing, and distribution. Therefore, even with successful trials, it could be a decade before these yeast-derived medications reach patients.